~ When Teachings Hurt Faith ~
Jesus exclaimed, "Situations that cause people to lose their faith will arise. How horrible it will be for the person who causes someone to lose his faith!" (Matthew 18:7b, GW). This is a serious consideration and warning to those who present their teachings and preachings as being as infallible as the sacred Scriptures upon which they are based. That's why St. Paul advises Timothy "Don't be in a hurry to place your hands on anyone to ordain them [as pastors or spiritual leaders]" (1 Timothy 5:22a, GW).
A man whom I know is sincerely contemplating all he hears about Christianity and is increasingly becoming frustrated. His reading disability limits his visual study of the Bible, so he thinks deeply about what he hears. Recently he explained to me how a Bible teacher said that God had to turn His face away from Christ hanging on the cross because God cannot look upon sin. (This is a popular "explanation" of why Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?") The man was truly distraught. "If God couldn't look at His own Son in sin, how can He possibly look at me and my sinful family?" He went on with other very legitimate questions, such as how could God look at the sin of the whole world to decide it was time for a cleansing flood or how could God keep looking after sinful and rebellious Israel?
I gently responded that not all biblical teachers explain Christ's exclamation that way. Jesus knew fully what was happening to Him on the cross and did ask God the Father if there was some other way during His pre-arrest anguish in the garden. People of God, when facing a torturous death for the faith, typically have the words of prayer and Scripture on their lips. I can imagine Jesus deeply contemplating Scripture and His obedience to fulfill all that was required of Him. That's why St. John wrote, "Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said 'I thirst'" (John 19:28, NIV). All was completed, the work of redemption. Jesus, then, was absorbed in prayer and Scripture and quoted the human anguish of emotion that King David felt, as Jesus was born through David's lineage: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1a, NIV).
This was not necessarily prophetic, since the stanza continues, "Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent" (Psalm 22:1b-2, NIV). As evidenced by the rest of that psalm, David knew God did not truly abandon him, and Jesus certainly knew that also. In addition, Jesus was not in the custom of addressing God as "God," but rather called Him "Father" or "Abba." I believe Jesus was quoting the prayer of David who suffered much and often included similar rhetorical questions throughout the Psalter. The Suffering Servant of Jesus was exclaiming His solidarity with the suffering descendants of Adam.
Just where do so many preachers get this notion that God can't look at sin when He converses with Satan and also "died for us while we were yet sinners" (Romans 5:8)? Why does this dubious teaching have such staying power?
My searching and inquisitive questioner wasn't done. "The preacher said that Jesus was tempted in every way like humans but He never sinned, so He knows what it's like to be us." (This is found in Hebrews 4:15.) The man continued, "Like me? Every way?" He told me he asked the preacher after the service about that and his answer was "That's what the Bible says."
Mmm…I looked up St. Paul's list of "common" sins: "Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like" (Galatians 5:19-21a, NIV). Was Jesus tempted by all that? Was John the Baptizer? St. Paul? St. Peter? Somehow I don't think so. Not in every way of humankind. What the Bible "says" and what we hear it say needs deep, prayerful meditation. What would that preacher say about the possibility that Jesus was even just tempted to get drunk at an orgy? I think he would recoil in horror at even the idea, yet he told my questioner "That's what the Bible says so that settles it."
The man felt he was an ugly sinner and distressed at learning God abandoned His own Son for the same reason. Furthermore, he was taught that the Jesus he wanted so much to hope in and learn about was tempted just as he was by seductive women, late night drinking parties and theft to pay for it all. I tried my best to undo a preacher's work of unknowingly but carelessly hammering stumbling blocks to a man's faith. I was especially anxious to restore honor and esteem in this man's eyes for our most loving God and Redeemer in our Christ.
Wise teachers of Scripture know that no matter how carefully one expounds, others will hear something different. That's why Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables and kept His expositions for private sessions with His inner circle. Even so, Jesus still saved some teachings for only after He was resurrected. Still more were saved for the "revelation by the Holy Spirit" after His ascension. The epistles of Paul, John, Peter, James and Jude were written to specific groups, namely the early churches who were already instructed in spiritual truths. And they took care to address the different churches according to their needs and levels of spiritual maturity. If these early saints had radio or television, I believe they would have been just as prudent in what was taught to whom.
Wise teachers also know the danger and futility of establishing doctrine from mystery and how different God's "world" is from that of people. Another stumbling block to the faith of seekers and the less spiritually mature is the ongoing contention between "predestination" and salvation to all who embrace the Redemptive Christ in faith. Arguments for both "doctrines" are based upon Scripture. I want to transcend both by looking at the Scriptural and spiritual reality outside this "box" of language and semantics, sidestepping the contention between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism.
Predestination takes the position we are all deserving of hell which is the only fate possible unless we are without sin, which, of course, no human is. So God in His mercy chose an elect to save so we should be grateful that He chose anyone at all. Being a gift of pure mercy and grace, one cannot take any pride or credit for his or her salvation.
Predestination is an easy practice in our world of time. If someone tells me he will drive through a city at 50 miles per hour ignoring all traffic signals and signs, I can tell him with certainty that he will be stopped by either an accident or law enforcement. A choice leads to a destiny.
Christ did tell His apostles He chose them, not the reverse. God chose Israel as the nation through which the Christ would incarnate on earth. But Jesus also gave us a parable in which a man chose guests for his feast. When the guests didn't respond, the man told his servants to bring in the poor and homeless. Eventually his house was full of people he chose. We chose to keep you on our subscriber mailing list and thus you are predestined to receive these Weekly Reflections every weekend, if you were a seeker of our e-mail delivery service.
In the domain of God, where the "Lamb was slain [for our sins] from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8), where everything we would ever say or do was already recorded before we were born, where God has already observed every future event, where there is no time, where everything is already known, our language of time, with past, present and future tenses, including predestination, loses usefulness and meaning. "For those He fore knew He predestined" is a no-brainer. If I "fore know" you are coming to my home for dinner, I have predestined that you will be served food. The Scriptures are clear on what "the kingdom of heaven is like."
But we have so many who are confused and distressed. "What if God predestined me and not my friend?" "What use is it to pray for my son's salvation if it has already been predestined?" And more than a few have remarked to me how gentle and kind ministers are when speaking of the dead at funerals, but so often speak with callous vindictiveness from the pulpit about the fate of those destined to hell: "They believe in God now, because they worship Him from the pit of hell! They didn't want anything to do with God and our Savior in this life, so they'll have their way forever!" Hey preacher! You are talking about people I love! People God loves! Your tone hurts. Why don't you grieve bitter tears instead? Paul wrote that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God, right? (Romans 8:39). Doesn't God still love my brothers and sisters and my spouse even if they choose to not love in return? Please let's not gloat over their fate!
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!" (Matthew 23:37-38, NAS). Jerusalem's fate was predestined because her children were unwilling. Let us weep with Jesus.
Let us also remove the stumbling blocks to new born faith. "Be careful not to let anyone rob you of this faith through a shallow and misleading philosophy. Such a person follows human traditions and the world's way of doing things rather than following Christ" (Colossians 2:8, GW).
Let us be extremely prayerful and compassionate when sharing the Good News, avoiding "straining gnats" and doctrinal contentions that are essentially human and don't make sense in the timeless heavenly kingdom. That's what Jesus did.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © January 12, 2002
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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